Pain on the Plane? Keep Your Spine Healthy With These Traveling Techniques

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Flying can be a real pain in the neck in more ways than one. From the hurried lifting of your luggage at security to the less-than-ergonomically correct seats found in most economy cabins, the whole experience of air travel doesn't quite sit well with sufferers of chronic back and neck pain. Rather than flying the friendly skies as the advertisements promise, many of us find ourselves enduring the endless ache and wishing our destination was quite a bit closer to home.

The good news is that there are ways to alleviate back and neck pain when you travel, and the medical professionals at the Spine Health Institute can help you learn them. Dr. Chetan Patel's team of certified physical therapists, exercise and rehabilitation experts can recommend stretches and activities to strengthen your muscles, improve your flexibility and ultimately make you more comfortable while traveling. Here are some tips to get you going in the right direction:

Start Stretching Early

Seasoned travelers tend to book the best-priced flights from six to 10 weeks prior to their travel date and that's a great time to start working on flexibility and strengthening exercises for your spine. If you are working with a physical therapist, they can also help you master stretching techniques that are designed for tight spaces, like the back of a crowded airplane.

In addition, practicing proper bending, lifting and twisting techniques is crucial for getting you ready for a trip that will likely involve doing these things many times over. Our bending, lifting and twisting videos will teach you how to make these small changes in your daily life that will have a big impact on the health of your spine.

And while we're on the subject, when booking your flight, try to minimize your total travel time. Those routes that take you far afield for a connection in exchange for a cheaper ticket and tons of frequent flier miles may not be worth their price in back pain. Its also not a bad idea to select an airline that offers seats with adjustable lumbar support.

Finally, if you're booking a hotel for your trip, keep in mind that not all hotel mattresses are equal. Your fellow travelers often have something to say about this, so read their reviews and make your selection accordingly to avoid waking up on the wrong side of back pain while on vacation or work travel.

One Month to Go

Nows the time to let the Spine Health Institute know if you need any special documentation regarding your condition for your travels. If you are not a current patient, make an appointment using the Book Online button at the top of this page. If you require any special medical equipment, such as gel cold packs that are over 3 oz. in size, a doctors note can make the security checkpoint go a little easier.

Call the airline to inform them of your medical condition and ask if you need documentation from your physician for special accommodation. The airline may be able to help you board early so you have time to get situated, arrange for personnel to help you carry your luggage and store it in overhead bins, or even travel the airport with ease in a shuttle.

Pack Like a Pro

Keep your luggage light when packing for your trip. Many of us try to avoid baggage fees by carrying luggage on the plane, but remember that this means you'll be dragging around extra weight that your back might not be used to supporting.

Heres a handy carry-on packing list for travelers with back pain:

A heating pad or cold packs for hot and cold therapy (be sure to get a note for gel packs)
Doctors note for airline or security special accommodations
Entertainment to keep your mind off any pain you may experience
Inflatable neck pillow
Pillow or rolled blanket for lumbar support
Tablet or laptop these all-in-one devices are typically easier and lighter to carry than a trio of music, movie and e-readers

Before You Board

Long lines are nothing new at airports, and waiting in them is no picnic for your back. Remember to stand with good posture and to balance the weight of any items you are carrying to avoid putting undue stress on certain muscles and avoid locking your knees. Heres a quick video that covers proper standing technique. If you brought cold packs in your carry-on, be sure to have a physicians note in hand for security.

Ready for the Runway

Tell the flight attendants about your medical condition. They may be able to help you stow items in the overhead bins, reassign you to a row with more legroom or find an emptier row so you can stretch out. Also, if you need to walk around and stretch more than the average passenger, the flight crew will understand and can help accommodate you.

If you must store items under the seat in front of you, position them in the center of the space so that your feet can rest on either side, allowing you to stretch while seated. Remember to use proper posture when sitting, as shown in this quick video. If you forgot your pillow or rolled blanket for lumbar support, roll a sweater or jacket and tuck it behind you.

Once in flight, get up and walk the aisle every 30 minutes (when possible) to stretch your spine and keep your muscles loose. You'll be surprised how effective this is for alleviating back and neck aches.

Whether you're traveling by plane, train or automobile, spending lengthy amounts of time in a cramped, seated position can cause even the best backs to get a little bent out of shape. When home care and stretching does not alleviate pain, or if you have back pain that persists for two weeks after your travels, the medical team at the Spine Health Institute can help! Schedule an appointment using the Book Online button at the top right of this page.


Back Care on Airplanes (updated 12/04/14). Retrieved from

Business Travel: A Long Trip, a Crammed Flight and a Lingering Pain (1/6/2004). Retrieved from

Traveling with a Bad Back (6/2010). Retrieved from Travel + Leisure:

9 Quick Back Pain Tips for Airplane Rides (n.d.). Retrieved from

Long-Haul Flights Can Be a Real Pain in the Back (3/11/2011). Retrieved from The Telegraph:

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